October 20, 2017

The subtlety is the point

Four business people in a discussionMany situations seem to require being focused and broad at the same time; being specialist as well as generalist.

That appears to be a contradiction, a dichotomy—one that needs very careful handling if a group of people is involved, and a considerable challenge to manage successfully.

If we suggest focusing an organisation, for example, in one or more particular areas, the people involved in the non-preferred areas are likely to resist because they feel threatened. But we possibly didn’t intend any real downside for them. It’s more that we hope to grow certain emerging strengths.

Alternatively, if we aim to keep everyone happy, we may fail to develop the concentration of effort necessary to achieve significant breakthroughs.

Chances are what we really require is a relative emphasis on certain areas that may yield superior returns on effort, not a major upheaval.

Our biggest challenge, in fact, may be to convey the subtlety of what we intend so that we don’t “frighten the horses” whose support we need. Managing the situation with the necessary sensitivity and spreading that ethos throughout the organisation could be harder than—and just as vital as—the actual choice of areas of focus.

In other words…

The subtlety is the point.

If we let go of the big goal…

Mount EverestIt’s seem slightly paradoxical, doesn’t it? If we put our big goal out of our mind and just focus on getting small things done, it’s easier to take those minor steps—to do the mundane. And so we make more progress towards our main objective.

The tasks we put in hand do need to contribute to the aim, of course. They need to be part of the plan. And we do need to have a clear idea of what our big goal is.

Assuming that to be the case…

Sometimes it’s easier to make progress if we stop worrying about the big thing we need to accomplish. Then we relax. And then we can get started.

This is worth remembering both for ourselves and anyone we might hope to lead.

If we stop worrying about the big goal; if we calmly accept its existence, and indeed the possibility that we might or might not get to the ultimate outcome, it could be that we will make more progress towards it.

That’s true even if “failure is not an option” funnily enough—perhaps especially if failure is not an option.

A more distracting environment than there’s ever been?

Woman with BlackberryIs this true?

Watching my early teenage years children struggle at times to focus on their homework in the face of diverse and increasing electronic distractions, I wonder whether their generation is growing up in the most distracting environment there has ever been.

Of course, living in a war zone might be rather worse. That’s true.

But assuming we’re not in physical danger, is our ability to focus more challenged than it’s ever been?

If so, that reality isn’t going to go away, and no doubt it’s going to intensify.

So it seems to me, we need to develop more skilful ways of coping; of sustaining our concentration. In fact, we need to get better at that just to stand still. We need more “one-pointedness” – the ability to focus on just one thing at a time.

Paradoxically, the modern world may drive us to be stiller in order to cope with its character; to be able to ignore its apparent insistence when we choose. Actually, the freneticism might force us to be calmer.

What do you think?

Are there more distractions that ever?

If so, how should we respond?

The talent that comes from clarity

Professional man and womanSometimes it seems that other people have special talents—talents we can’t match.

There may be some truth in that in some cases.

More often…

The difference is just that they’ve developed tremendous clarity in what they are about. And because they’re very clear…

They can be very focused. And because they’re very focused…

They can achieve highly. And because they achieve highly…

They seem very talented.

It might be that to get the same results, we need the same talent.

Or more likely, we just need the same clarity.

What really is the question?

Man thinkingMost of the time we focus on answering the question—or trying to.

But is it the right question?

Are we investing our energies in solving the right problem?

In my own (sometimes painful) experience…

We’re inclined to spend rather too much time trying to answer a question and not enough time making sure it’s the right question in the first place. We’re comfortable, in a sense, with the question as stated.

For example…

I once spent some considerable time trying to think of a way to repair a damaged piece of manufactured pipework in a remote location, with only limited resources. Only when someone asked “What does that pipe do anyway?” and I answered that it conveyed water from there to there, did I realise that implementing an alternative way of piping the water was much easier that repairing the damaged part. A piece of tubing and two jubilee clips would do fine and all were available.

To this day, I am in awe of the human propensity to fixate on answering the wrong—or at least not most helpful—question.

When actually…

As Einstein said, “The questions are more important than the answers.”

To avoid the trap, we need to be prepared to go in the direction of knowing less rather than knowing more, at first—to not only not know the answer, but to choose not to know the question either. We need to accept—even welcome—the discomfort that entails.

Where could you do with reconsidering the question?

Why relationship skills?

Networking groupSometimes it’s worth reminding ourselves of our reasons for doing something.


Why focus on relationship skills, whether in a professional or a personal context?

After all, talking about the subject can seem a bit “preachy” if we’re not careful.

But there is a whole other way of looking at this…

Relating to other people is, at times, one of the most demanding and yet potentially enriching things we do. Doing a better job of that can unlock all sorts of benefits. It’s where the leverage is.

So the subject seems worthy of a little attention and focus—perhaps more than a little.

And perhaps a systematic approach.

There’s a bit more to this than communication skills: Getting one’s point across in the moment isn’t the same as successfully managing a relationship over time, which requires a little more sophistication.

I think so anyway. Don’t you?

Can you find clarity in clear ambiguity?

Group talkingWe’re accustomed to wanting clarity. We’d like things to be clearly in focus. We’d like a single right answer.

But sometimes…

The best we’re going to get is clear sight of the inherently multi-faceted nature of the situation—the different considerations we need to keep in balance. For example, we might need to be both driving and consultative; we might need to work on both task and relationship; we might need both collaboration and competition.

Oddly enough…

Once we see ambiguity clearly, that brings a kind of clarity. We know what we need to balance. We can be good at both axes. The one does not need to be at the expense of the other.

Odder still, clarity is contained in clear ambiguity, like this…

CLeAR ambiguITY

Curious, don’t you think?

The double benefit of focus, and how to achieve it

Man thinkingSome lessons keep coming round, for me they do anyway…

Getting focused has a double benefit—probably more than double actually.

Dropping some tasks—disengaging from some projects or organisations—has the obvious benefit of freeing up some time.

But it’s much more than that…

Having fewer things to cover, and the opportunity to focus, makes us so much more efficient on the things we do decide to do.

It’s not so easy letting go though.


I’ve learned, time and again, that if I’m ambivalent about something, it means I should drop it. When I finally do, I often wish I had done so sooner.

Maybe that’s how having a real break and time off works: Once we’ve walked away from everything for a time, our choice is then what to pick up, rather than what to drop. That’s quite different emotionally.

What about you?

How do you convince yourself to let go of something that seemed important, or maybe still seems important?

One thing at a time—how hard can that be?

Woman leader…em, quite hard.

That’s my experience anyway.

Doesn’t mean it isn’t the right principle though, just that it isn’t that easy to achieve, especially if our vision isn’t very clear.

I remember…

The amazing effect of putting some delays in the start-up sequence of a computer system so that all the processes weren’t competing with each other as they launched themselves. By serialising things properly, the start-up time went from the best part of an hour to just a few minutes.

Putting in delays speeded things up.

That seems all backward.

And it can be emotionally difficult to put some things off so that we can do other things properly now.

But that’s what we need to do because focus is a kind of letting go.


What could you do with scheduling out?

In making plans for work…

Sir Winston Churchill…it is sometimes necessary to take into account the actions of other people.

It was a week of Winston Churchill quotes last week, though not, in fact, this one: “In making plans for war, it is sometimes necessary to take into account the actions of the enemy.”

So what do you do to get your own work done and still be available to other people?

(Not that they’re “the enemy,” of course.)

Just when you think you found a new quiet spot, they’ll seek you out. Family too.

They want your attention after all, and you’ve cultivated that really.

So how do you make them content and self-sufficient before taking off on your own?

What’s the reassurance they need?